Healthwise: Mind your gray matter

An illuminated sketch of a brain hovering over someone’s hand in an open field.

Do the following situations ring a bell? You go into the kitchen for something but can’t remember why you’re there. Or you see someone you know and just can’t remember their name. 

Don’t worry, this can happen to anyone at any age. “The most common cause of memory lapse or lack of sharpness is fatigue,” says Dr. David Brown, CIBC’s Corporate Medical Director. “A poor sleep, especially over the course of a few nights or weeks, can have a remarkable impact. The fix is simple — get more and regular sleep.” 

Fleeting recall problems can also be normal changes in the brain’s structure and function as you age. So along with better sleep, here are some other ways to protect and sharpen your mind.

Feed your appetite for learning

Mental exercise can help maintain brain cells and keep them communicating. While many people have jobs that keep them mentally active, taking up a hobby or learning a new skill can also keep your mind sharp. You can read, play chess, write your life story or design a new layout for your garden. The point is to take on a project that involves skills you don't usually use. 

Dr. Brown says that building and preserving brain connections is an ongoing process, so make lifelong learning a priority. What’s more, it’s fun and gives you something to talk about.

Take advantage of all your senses

Isn’t it magical when a single smell or sound evokes an entire scene from the past? Researchers say that memories of an event are spread across the brain's sensory centres, but are controlled by the hippocampus, which is responsible for emotion, learning and memory. So, challenge all your senses as you try new and different things. For instance, next time you’re at a new restaurant, try to guess the ingredients in your dish by focusing on the aromas. Have you ever tried pottery? Next time you do, pay attention to the feel and smell of the materials you're using.

Believe in yourself

Did you know that myths about aging can contribute to a failing memory? Middle-aged and older learners do worse on memory tasks when they hear negative stereotypes about aging, and better when the messages are positive. If you believe you’re unable to control your mental functions, you may be less likely to work at improving your skills. On the other hand, if you believe you can improve and take steps to do so, you have a better chance of keeping your mind nimble.

Video games could make you smarter

We don’t usually link playing video games with improved mental function. However, researchers say that playing video games can develop your attention and visuospatial skills, making them more efficient. 

Not all video games are created equal. They can present all sorts of mental challenges and stimulate different thinking skills. Strategy games require you to plan, strategize and manage limited resources and logistics. Action games make you think quickly, and puzzle games can help boost IQ. 

So, go ahead and play video games with your kids and grandkids. You’ll up your “cool factor” and get smarter in the process.

“Simple lifestyle choices can sharpen your mind, boost your mental performance and preserve your memory as you age,” says Dr. Brown. It’s never too early or too late to start keeping your brain healthy and young.